Engineers as Leaders

Richard Kirby, CPEng, MIPENZ
INGENIUM President
Assets Group Manager, Manawatu District Council
Feilding, New Zealand
Presenter, 2005 APWA Congress

Note: The Association of Local Government Engineering New Zealand (INGENIUM) held its 2005 Annual Conference in Nelson, 9-12 June. The theme was "Engineers as Leaders" and this report outlines the key messages embracing this theme and puts them in the context of managing infrastructure within New Zealand.

Although the INGENIUM conference included technical papers outlining recent local government engineering projects undertaken within New Zealand, it equally focused on the need to provide leadership. Engineers are in general good managers and have the potential to become good leaders; however, it is not necessarily a simple transition. The leadership versus management debate is not new and many leadership experts have clearly espoused the virtues and differences. However, in a sector where technical excellence is strived for, there is also the constant need for leadership—visionary, pragmatic and strategic leadership.

Alan Patching, former Chief Executive Officer of Sydney's Olympic Stadium, highlighted the ability that engineers can become good leaders. As engineers, we develop habits; then when we move into leadership those habits, which were strengths in the technical environment, can become weaknesses in the leadership environment. We become so good at what we do that we find difficulty looking outside the square. Our engineering skills need to be modified into leadership skills to enhance our leadership, not inhibit it. Alan identified from his experience that the key aspects of leadership are:

  • A vision that motivates people, giving energy and freedom for people to perform;
  • An ability to celebrate success with the whole team;
  • Creating an atmosphere that encourages innovation in design solutions and in service delivery.

These aspects are somewhat different to those expected of an engineer in a technical role, hence the need to transform habits and mindsets.

Managing Teams in Changing Times
Mark McCrindle, Founder and Director of The Australian Leadership Foundation Ltd, reviewed leadership from a different perspective: the challenge of managing teams in changing times. The changing demographics clearly indicate an increasing age profile where within 15 years the number of people in the middle to senior age groups will be similar to the younger age groups. This change requires forethought on the likely impacts on infrastructure, and the need for changing our approaches to leadership to accommodate those changes.

The approaches to leadership are transitioning away from the authoritarian and competency aspects traditionally accepted as qualities of leadership towards the softer character qualities espoused by integrity and credibility. Our three essential qualities are:

  • Competencies - what we do, our technical skills
  • Cooperation - how we respond in a team, our people skills
  • Character - who we are as individuals, our personal integrity

Engineers generally will be very good at competency and at a technical level that has traditionally been the focus. However, the move to leadership puts greater emphasis on the other two qualities. Many leaders who have had great competency skills have fallen because of a character flaw that has been exposed in their leadership role. Leadership is becoming more focused on personal integrity and relating with people where leadership empowers, rather than the traditional style that dominates and controls.

This change in leadership approach, if implemented well, will change the team environment within organisations where the priority will be on relationships rather than on status or position.

With the changing leadership approaches and the changing team environment it is interesting to note that the top five attraction/retention factors for staff (in order of priority) are work/life balance, workplace culture, management style, job content, and training. The need for leaders to embrace the changing approaches is paramount. Embracing softer people-type issues into our management style is something almost foreign to us technical engineers!

Experiences as a Leader
John Palmer, Chairman of Air New Zealand Ltd, shared his experiences leading three companies out of pending bankruptcy. At the time of taking the helm, John confirmed that each of these companies was characterised by:

  • A company culture that was not helpful
  • A business structure that was inappropriate
  • Good individual skills amongst staff but no team culture

In these situations one of the fundamental attributes required of a leader is integrity. Integrity allows credibility and trust to be established. You can have a whole group of individual stars, but unless the leader can establish their trust and mould them together as a team no progress can be made. John amplified his experiences by outlining the essential attributes of a leader:

  • Integrity - no integrity, no trust
  • Passion - energy to motivate yourself and the team
  • Courage - being able to stand strong in a crisis
  • Faith - trusting your own judgement

A leader can fail, not necessarily because of a lack of skill or a lack of enthusiasm, but because of a lack in one or more of the four attributes above. Leadership is about inspiring others to excel in themselves and in a team together.

The New Zealand Context
Over the past 10 years New Zealand local government has made significant advances in applying a long-term sustainable approach to managing its infrastructure. Despite these advances it is still imperative that strong, clear leadership is given to ensure that the rate of progress is continued. Although the technical excellence is still important, it is equally important that it is undertaken in the environment of good leadership. The leadership qualities referred to during the conference are universal and timeless, and whatever our status in life they will always apply. The challenge is to embrace them and accept the change demanded of us personally.

In October 2005, INGENIUM is co-sponsoring the "International Infrastructure Management Summit: Driving Successful Business" which is an opportunity for infrastructure leaders and decision makers from around the world to come and collaborate on the future of infrastructure asset management. Details of this summit are on This summit will certainly be an opportunity for leaders to lift their game and vision the future.

Richard Kirby will present two educational sessions at the 2005 APWA Congress entitled "The View from New Zealand: Deteriorating Public Infrastructure and the Dilemma for Elected Representatives and Asset Managers" (Sunday, September 11, 4-4:50 p.m.) and "State of the Art: Asset Management Practice from Australia, New Zealand and Canada" (Monday, September 12, 3-4:30 p.m.). He can be reached at

Cultural Proverbs

"That which is good is never finished." - Sukuma, Tanzania

"The one chased away with the club comes back, but the one chased away with kihooto (reason) does not." - Kikuyu, Kenya

"The death of an elderly man is like a burning library." - Ivorian Proverb

"The words of the elderly are as sweet as honey, but if you do not listen they become as sour as bile." - Arab Proverb

"If the rhythm of the drum beat changes, the dance step must adapt." - Burkina Faso Proverb

"A handful of patience is worth a bushel of brains." - Dutch Proverb